In the slanting sunlight of an April evening, two soldiers left the Antonia fortress in Jerusalem and made their way outside the city. Moving purposefully, they made their way to the place called Calvary. It was a gruesome spot, stained with the blood of countless criminals and dappled now by the shadows of the three men who hung on crosses above the hillside. It was a familiar scene for the soldiers, and neither the sight of the twisted, agonized bodies nor the sound of their painful gasping interrupted their conversation.
They arrived under the first cross. Their task there was over in a flash: the thud of the hammer, the crunch of bone, the grunt of anguish from the dying man. They moved to the second cross, and, with the same brutal efficiency, the action was repeated. Then they came to the center cross. For the first time, their attention was really arrested. At this cross all was silent. Here was no struggle for breath, no gulping of air. The soldiers looked at each other in surprise – could he really be dead already? The senior soldier shrugged. “Best to make sure,” he said, and taking his spear, thrust it into the side of the Man who hung on the cross, “and forthwith came there out blood and water” (Joh 19:34).
Back in his temporary Praetorium, Pilate felt that the day would never end. It had started early and, Pilate was increasingly aware, had not gone well. At the trial of the Man called Jesus, he had allowed the Jews to play him, to use the weight of his own insecurities about his standing with Caesar against him. He knew he should not have delivered Jesus to crucifixion. Even the small act of vindictiveness in his wording of the accusation to be placed on the cross had done nothing to relieve his feelings, though there had been some satisfaction in dismissing the Jewish leaders’ complaints about calling this Man the King of the Jews. Hardly had that business been dealt with, when they were back again. This time it was the Sabbath they were worried about. They didn’t want the bodies to remain on the crosses, so could Pilate please attend to the matter? Pilate had attended to it, sending two of his soldiers to break the legs of the crucified men, robbing them of their ability to draw breath, and hastening their inevitable end.
And now someone else was requesting an audience. At least, he reflected, there was only one of them this time, and Joseph of Arimathaea wasn’t just any Jew. He was rich, which helped, but it wasn’t just that. He was a man of stature – an honorable man, someone who could not lightly be dismissed. Pilate had noticed his absence from the earlier gatherings, and was curious to learn what had led him to seek this private audience. He was taken aback both by Joseph’s demeanor and demand – he “went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus” (Mar 15:43 KJV). He was surprised that so august a man as Joseph would concern himself with the burial of Jesus of Nazareth.
But his real surprise ran deeper: “Pilate marvelled if he were already dead” (Mar 15:44). Just a little over six hours had passed since He had been nailed to the cross. Crucifixion had been carefully calibrated to maximize the suffering of its victims, by eking out their agony for as long as possible – often days, never such a short period as this. Suspicion flared in Pilate’s mind – could this be a rescue mission? It was not unheard of for victims of crucifixion to survive their ordeal if they were taken down while still alive. Obviously, that would be disastrous, and so Pilate “calling unto him the centurion he asked him whether he had been any while dead” (Mar 15:44 KJV). The centurion confirmed it, leaving no room for doubt. The centurions who carried out crucifixions were trained specialists – there was no risk of their mistaking mere loss of consciousness for death. Pilate granted Joseph his permission almost absentmindedly, still amazed that it could be over so soon.
Pilate marveled, but he only grasped a fraction of the true wonder of what had happened. The real marvel was not that the Lord Jesus was already dead; the real marvel was the reason why He was already dead. There was a timetable in operation that Pilate knew nothing about. It was a timetable ordained even before time existed and, in total ignorance of its existence, the Jewish rulers, Pilate, and the centurions all moved in accordance with it. The Man on the center cross was the spotless Lamb of God “foreknown before the foundation of the world” (1Pe 1:20 NET), and His sacrifice had been divinely planned from eternity.
Pilate knew nothing of the wonder of a divine timetable. He was equally ignorant of the wonder of a finished work. Every other man who had hung on a cross had been a victim, enduring what he was powerless to resist. For them the cross was an awful punishment, the cruel instrument of an agonizing death. But the Savior had spoken of the cross as a work to be completed (Joh 17:4). In the moments that passed as He hung on the cross He was no passive sufferer; He was actively undertaking and perfectly accomplishing the comprehensive and eternal work that the Father had given Him to do. And He finished it. From the center cross had rung forth a loud cry that reverberates down the ages and will echo for all eternity: “It is finished.” What a wonder is this, that in just six hours, an infinite and eternal work could be accomplished, in impeccable and unimprovable perfection. What an offering this was. What sufferings He endured. What a price He paid. And the sacrifice having been offered, the price paid, and the work finished, there was nothing left to suffer, and so the Savior died.
Pilate knew nothing of the obedience of a perfect servant. Philippians 2:8 tells us that the Lord Jesus “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (KJV). That meant something radically different for the Savior than it could ever mean for us. There have been servants of God who were obedient unto death, in the sense that their obedience led them up to death. We are all obedient to death – apart from the Rapture every one of us will have to succumb to the arrest of what Shakespeare called “this fell sergeant.” But only the Savior was obedient “to the point of death” (NET, ESV). Our obedience must always stop short of death, because death for us is involuntary. But the Savior was different. He had “the authority to lay [His life] down, and … the authority to take it back again” (Joh 10:18 NET). When Pilate wondered, he wondered not at some accident of physiology but at the greatest act of obedience that this world has ever – and will ever – see. It was not weakness He marveled at, but unparalleled power.
Pilate marveled that He was dead already, but we wonder that He died at all. The great fact of that death and its immense significance will make us wonder – and worship – for all eternity.